The South African 5 Shillings that was issued in 1952 commemorates the 300th anniversary of the founding of Cape Town by the Dutch.

The first Europeans to set foot however on the Southern coast of Africa were the Portuguese, who under the leadership of Bartolomeu Dias on the 3rd of February 1488 disembarked near or at Mosselbaai approximately 350 kilometers East of Cape Town on their way to find a sea route to India.

Jan van Riebeeck arrives in Table Bay in April 1652 – by Charles Bell. * Source ;

Dias claims Cape Good Hope for Portugal

When Bartolomomeu Dias was sailing back to Europe from Asia he decided to go ashore at what would later became known as “Cape of Good Hope”, and to erect a cross.

On the outward journey the Cape was missed due to bad weather and storms. Therefor the place where he landed was named “Cabo das Tormentas” meaning “Cape of Storms” in English.

The planting of cross by Bartholomew Dias in 1488 – by F. Benda. * Source ;

Portuguese explorers in the 15th century were the first Europeans to open up trade routes to Asia with the goal of importing the fabled and costly luxurious spices from the East. Portugal would continue to dominate the trade routes via the Southern tip of Africa to Asia until late 17th century.

A common misconception is that the “Cape of Good Hope” is the most Southern point of Africa, but it actually isn’t. The most Southern point of Africa is at “Cape Agulhas” where the Atlantic and Indian Ocean meet in the form of the warm water Agulhas current and the cold water Benguela current.

But when a ship is travelling from the Equator along the Western coast of Africa in a southward direction, the Cape of Good Hope marks the place where a ship will start to sail more eastward then southwards, thus “rounding the Cape”.

Cape Good Hope as is visible, isn’t the most Southern point of Africa, but Cape Agulhas.

In the years after his discovery other Portuguese sailors would also make landfall when rounding “Cape of Good Hope”, and also erect other crosses at the Cape. This was done for multiple reasons :

  • To thank God and praise him for having it made safely thus far on the outward journey, praying for a successful trade mission and a safe return voyage ;
  • As a beacon for other ships as a sign to mark that from this point on, a ship would travel eastward instead of towards the South ;
  • To strengthen the claim of the Portuguese Crown on the newly discovered land ;

Cape Town : Dias Beach – Cape Point. Source.

The King of Portugal, John II, later renamed the “Cape of Storms” into “Cabo da Boa Esperanca”, meaning “Cape of Good Hope”.  It was this King that renewed the Portuguese expansion into Africa and the mapping of its coastline.

Not only did King John II sent out Bartolomeu Dias to scout the coasts of Africa and to find a trade route to India and beyond, but also to find a fabled lost Nestorian Christian nation in the East ruled by “Prester John”.

The mystery surrounding Prester John

How the legendary story of Prester John exactly originated is unclear, but what is certain that the story heavily influenced the European nobility and clergy to seek out this Christian nation in the East and find an ally in the struggle against Muslim expansion.

Prester John was said to be a son of the Grail bearer Repans de Schoye and the Christian baptized Saracen knight Feirefiz. He was the half brother of Parzival who is a leading character in Wolram von Eschenbach’s poem Parzival.

Prester John from Hartmann Schedel‘s Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493. * Source.

The location of this Nestorian Christian kingdom was said to be located in diverse places ranging from India to Central and Far East Asia. The Portuguese thought they had located this Kingdom finally in Ethiopia.

A map of Prester John’s kingdom as Ethiopia, source ;


“Preste” as the Emperor of Ethiopia, enthroned on a map of East Africa in an atlas prepared by the Portuguese for Queen Mary, 1558. source ;

All though the Portuguese would frequently anchor at the Cape of Good Hope and Mosselbaai to refresh their supplies, haul in fresh water and make ship repairs, they actually didn’t have any interests to establish a permanent settlement in this area like they had done in Mozambique, Ghana or other area’s on the Gold coast late 15th century.

The first to discover the Table mountain was António de Saldanha in 1503, and he also would be the first European to climb it.

The British Crown stated their claim on the land where Capetown would later be founded by hoisting the English Flag on “Leeuwenkop”, meaning “Lionshead” mountain which has an elevation of 669 meter  and is now part of “Tafelberg” National Park.

View on Lions Head – South Africa. * Source ;

Dutch Colony

The first Dutch ship to sail from the Cape of Good Hope straight to the Dutch East Indies instead of sailing along the East Coast of Africa did so in 1611. While on her way back from the Dutch East Indies, the Dutch ship “Nieuw Haarlem” got stranded near the Cape of Good Hope on the 25th of March 1647 with a crew of sixty people.

The survivors of the shipwreck would spend over a year living on the Cape before getting rescued by a fleet of five Dutch ships in March 1648. They reported back about the favorable climate, good relationships with the local Khoikhoi, trade possibilities and a strategic point for resupplying

It was this event and the reports following thereof, that made the Dutch East India Company to decide to establish a refresh station and reduce the fatalities due to illnesses like scurvy. With the possibility of refreshing vegetables, fruits, meat and fresh water for the crew, in the end the trip would economically would be more profitable as a whole enterprise.

Flag of the Dutch East India Company (fictional). * Source ;

Jan van Riebeeck was a Dutch merchant and had been aboard one of the ships that had saved the shipwrecked crew of the ship “Nieuw Haarlem”, and proposed himself to lead the building of a refreshing station near the Cape of Good Hope. He was under the investigation of corruption and in this way hoped to redeem himself and gain enough trust and support to be transferred back again to the Dutch East Indies.

A fleet from the Dutch East India Company sailing along the West Coast of Africa.

He would arrive at the Tablebay on the 6th of April 1652 together with his wife and four year old son and go ashore to found Capetown colony accompanied by 83 men and seven women. The Dutch East India Company had instructed van Riebeeck to keep the operating costs at a minimum and to be as much self sufficient as possible.

As soon as the Dutch had landed a fort was constructed to house at least 80 persons to protect the startup refresh outpost against the native population and enemy incursions from the sea. On the 3rd of August 1652 the fort in a square shape was finished and could accommodate all the colonists that had arrived with Jan van Riebeeck. The fort was named “Fort of Good Hope”.

In the beginning the new colony was plagued with difficulties like harsh winter weather which would claim the lives of dozens of new settlers, expensive operating costs and a shortage of labor force.

A Dutch fleet under the command of admiral Gerard Demmer arrived the next year of 1653 in the month of March to test what the colony was built for : to refresh the supplies of the fleet and this mission was successfully accomplished with the hauling in of fresh water, vegetables and meat.

Main entrance castle “Good Hope”. * Source ;

Upon his return in the Dutch Republic the Admiral made a positive rapport about the successful resupplying effort at the newly founded colony. Agricultural activities were expanded by the colonists but a shortage of labor still remained an obstacle to make the colony thrive more.

To combat this the Dutch East India Company brought in slave labor from the Dutch colonies in Madagascar and the Dutch East Indies, and the first arrived in the year of 1658 almost doubling the current population at that time.

In 1659 the Dutch East India Company decided to grant colonists the title of free citizen and to promote independent farming. This was also the year that the first grapes were harvested.

Over the years there was an influx of Dutch, German colonists together with French Hugenots who had fled to the Dutch Republic to escape religious prosecution in France. Agricultural production increased, and by 1679 the “Castle of Good Hope” in an altered shape from the square “Fort of Good Hope” to a pentagonal structure was finished.

Castle of Good Hope – Isaak de Graaf 1674. * Source ;

The population of Capetown in 1679 consisted of 239 white persons and probably an equal amount of slaves, with over 30-40 houses divided by four streets. By the end of the 18th century this had grown to over 1000 houses and 14.000 souls residing in this area.

The British take over the Cape Colony

 In 1806 the Cape colony and Capetown were recaptured by the British as part of the Napoleonic wars after the battle of Blauwberg. The Dutch Republic had been occupied by the French and thus all Dutch possessions had become legitimate war bounty for the British.

When the war was over some territories were given back to the Kingdom of the Netherlands excluding the Cape Colony. The British understood its strategic geographic importance and would keep it for themselves, not returning it like they had done in 1803 after having conquered Capetown for the first time in 1795.

Act signed by Jan van Riebeeck 1667. * Source ;

Under the reign of the United Kingdom a large portion of the descendants of the Dutch, German and French settlers were oppressed leading to the Boer Wars where many innocent civilians would loose their lives.

When diamonds were discovered in 1867, followed by the Witwatersrand Goldrush in 1886, immigrants poured into poured into South Africa leading to a population in Capetown of 170.000 people by the beginning of the 20th century.

Boer guerrillas during the Second Boer War. * Source ;

Capetown would continue to grow but was taken over by Johannesburg as largest city of South Africa. The oldest European urban development in South Africa can be found in Capetown and she currently holds the title of “Legislative Capital of South Africa” with a populace of over 400.000 people.

Panorama of the Cape Town city centre. * Source ;

The Old Cape Town City Hall as seen from the Grand Parade in front of the building. * Source ;